Have you ever considered going to a mental health support group?
The idea of talking to a group of strangers about your mental health can sound intimidating, so many people write off the idea of attending a support group altogether. While it can take some getting used to, attending a mental health support group can have many benefits.
What are support groups?
A support group is “a group of people who are led by a professional and come together with a goal of overcoming or coping with a shared problem.”
Support groups are designed for people who have shared experiences. They provide a safe, nonjudgmental setting where folks can share their experiences and feelings, offer advice, encourage one another, and find healing and growth.
Support groups meet for all kinds of reasons. Here are just some of the things that support groups meet about:
- Navigating a health issue
- Dealing with a mental health disorder
- Going through a divorce or breakup
- Learning new coping skills
- Substance abuse recovery
- Eating disorder recovery
- Dealing with being a caregiver
- Coping with grief or bereavement
- Experiencing domestic violence
- Trauma recovery
- Navigating infertility
How do support groups work?
In general, support groups have a leader who is trained to guide the group through discussion. For mental health support groups, this leader is often a therapist or other mental health professional who can offer insight and education on what the group is discussing. In some groups, the leader is someone who has gone through whatever the group is meeting about who wants to help others through the situation.
Some groups are offered through churches, community centers, schools, medical centers, or other organizations. A support group that you may have heard of before is Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a group designed to support individuals dealing with alcohol abuse.
There are also many support groups online, from groups affiliated with organizations to social media groups. Whatever level of anonymity you’d prefer, there’s likely an online support group for you. Keep in mind that online groups might have different rules for moderation than an in-person group would – it’s difficult to moderate and guide the conversation 24/7. If you’re looking for a more structured group, in-person groups might be a better fit for you.
Some support groups are open-ended and meet on a regular basis for as long as members wish to attend. Other support groups are designed with a certain number of sessions. Sometimes groups will be free, and sometimes they have a fee to join. Some groups may even allow you to use your insurance benefits.
In general, when a group has a set number of sessions, the group won’t be open to new members until the next round. These are called closed groups, where new members can only join at certain times to keep the group private and focused on the topic at hand. Open groups, on the other hand, welcome new members at every meeting. Support groups often have clear rules about who the group is for, how to interact with everyone respectfully, and the expectations around confidentiality. What is shared in the group should stay private.
So, how can support groups benefit your mental health? Here are 3 ways:
You can benefit just by listening
A common misconception about support groups is that if you show up, you have to speak. That’s not the case. Support groups, by definition, are about providing support, so forcing someone to do something they aren’t ready for or comfortable with is not how they operate.
There may be some weeks where you share more than others, but one of the great things about a support group is that you can benefit just from showing up and listening to the other members. You might feel too anxious to talk the first few times you meet with a support group. There might be a day where you’re just not feeling up to sharing personal details.
Whatever the reason is for not wanting to share, it’s okay. Meeting as a group allows members to share when they want to and still benefit from what other members are sharing when they don’t.
You can learn new coping skills
Life is hard and complicated, and we don’t always have coping skills that are going to be supportive or helpful. Many of us rely on the coping skills we learned growing up, some of which might not be supportive into adulthood. It takes time and effort to learn new ways to cope in distressing situations, which can feel overwhelming when you’re already dealing with something difficult.
The beautiful thing about a support group is that you’ll learn coping skills that have worked for other people in your exact situation. You don’t need to start from scratch, you can learn from people who have been where you are. Support groups can give you ideas for how to cope, provide advice and insight on your situation, and give you a chance to talk it out with people who really get it because they’ve been there too.
You’ll remember that you’re not alone
When you’re going through something hard, it’s easy to feel like you’re on your own. It can be hard to imagine that anyone else has ever experienced what you’re feeling or that you can find your way out of what’s going on. Meeting with a support group can help remind you that you’re not alone in what you’re going through. You can learn from people who have been in your situation, and find validation for your experience.
Learning from others what worked for them and what didn’t can help you make decisions, understand your situation, and build hope for the future. It’s powerful to see people who have gone through a similar situation come out on the other side and find healing. That can help remind you that it’s possible to get through this.
Support groups can be a powerful tool in your mental health toolbox. While they’re not the right fit for everyone, for many people, support groups offer community, education, and encouragement during difficult times.